Scoped Type Variables

Brief Explanation

In Haskell 98, it is sometimes impossible to give a signature for a locally defined variable, e.g. cmp in

sortImage :: Ord b => (a -> b) -> [a] -> [a]
sortImage f = sortBy cmp
  where cmp x y = compare (f x) (f y)

The argument type of cmp is the type a in the signature of sortImage, but there is no way to refer to it in a type signature. Quantification of type variables over expressions is needed.

Proposal (see below for details):

  • extend the scope of type variables in class and instance heads.
  • allow bindings of type variables in type annotations, as in GHC 6.6, but with existential types handled by something other than pattern type signatures.


Note that although GHC and Hugs use the same syntax, the meaning of type variables is quite different, and there are other differences too.


add Scoped Type Variables
scoping of type variables in class instances

Binding sites for type variables

Class and instance declarations

Haskell already binds type variables in class and instance declarations. It is proposed that these also scope over bindings in the where part (as currently implemented by GHC, but not Hugs). This permits signatures that would not otherwise be possible.

An example of a class declaration:

class C a where
    op :: [a] -> a

    op xs = let ys :: [a]
                ys = reverse xs
            in head ys

An example of an instance declaration:

class C t where
    op :: t -> t

instance C [a] where
    op xs = let ys :: [a]
                ys = reverse xs
            in ys ++ ys

Type annotations

Hugs provides only one mechanism for binding type variables:

  • Pattern type signatures. Free variables in the type stand for distinct new type variables in the scope of the pattern, e.g.
    sortImage (f::a->b) = sortBy cmp
      where cmp :: a -> a -> Ordering
            cmp x y = compare (f x) (f y)
    That is, the type variables are rigid (universally quantified).

GHC 6.4 provides three extensions that bind type variables:

  • Explicit foralls in type signature declarations. The bound variables scope over the function body, e.g.
    sortImage :: forall a b. Ord b => (a -> b) -> [a] -> [a]
    sortImage f = sortBy cmp
      where cmp :: a -> a -> Ordering
            cmp x y = compare (f x) (f y)
    This could be a bit awkward with class methods, where the signature can be a long way from the binding.
  • Pattern type signatures. Free variables in the type stand for new types in the scope of the pattern, e.g.
    sortImage (f::a->b) = sortBy cmp
      where cmp :: a -> a -> Ordering
            cmp x y = compare (f x) (f y)
  • Result type signatures, giving the type of both sides of the equation. Free variables in the type stand for new types in the scope, e.g.
    sortImage f :: [a] -> [a] = sortBy cmp
      where cmp :: a -> a -> Ordering
            cmp x y = compare (f x) (f y)

In the latter two cases, the variable can stand for any type, not necessarily a type variable as in these examples, i.e. the variable is existentially quantified.

GHC 6.6 allows binding via:

  • Explicit foralls in type signature declarations, as above.


  • RankNTypes allows function types like
    shallowTerm :: (forall a. Data a => Maybe a) -> (forall b. Data b => b)
    in which referring to the type variable b seems to require a binding in a result type signature. Nor are binding result type signatures sufficient to name all type variables, e.g. consider naming the type variable a in the body of the following function:
    iter :: Int -> (forall a. (a -> a) -> (a -> R) -> a -> R)
    iter n step k init = ...
    In these cases the forall and context can be floated out, but not if they were buried in a type synonym.
  • If there were a special syntax for binding type variables in existentials, pattern type signatures would be independent of type variable binding (and thus an othogonal design choice).
  • If the language does not include GADTs, such type variables could be bound with a new pattern syntax mimicking the data declaration, e.g.
    data Accum a = forall s. MkAccum s (a -> s -> s) (s -> a)
    f (forall s. MkAccum st a e) = ...
    (Mutatis mutandi for other variants of ExistentialQuantification syntax.) With GADTs one can define existential types without explicit quantification, so the order of multiple type variables wouldn't be clear.


  • Allows better documentation (without them, some expressions cannot be annotated with their types).
  • Extensions such as RankNTypes and GADTs require such annotations, so even more important in conjunction with them.


These apply to the GHC 6.4 version:

  • Many different forms of scoped type variables makes them hard to reason about. For example:
        f :: a -> a 
        f = \x -> (x :: a)
    is rejected but
        g = let f :: a -> a = \x -> (x :: a) in f 
    is allowed.
  • With pattern and result signatures, one must examine outer bindings to determine whether an occurrence of a type variable is a binding. This creates a potential trap. A rule like ExplicitQuantification might be needed if these were put into the standard.

Alternative proposal

Both let-bound and lambda-bound type variables are in scope in the body of a function, and can be used in expression signatures. However, just as a let-binding can shadow other values of the same name, let-bound type variables may shadow other type variables. Thus no type variables are ever already in scope in a let-bound signature. Lambda-bound type variables (e.g. in a pattern) do not shadow but rather refer to the same type. ExplicitQuantification is required for all expression type signatures but not let-bound signatures.

This proposal tries to strike a balance between backwards compatibility, avoiding accidental type errors, and simplicity. Let-bound type signatures always create a new scope, lambda-bound ones are always in the same scope, and it is clear from expression type signatures which are the scoped type vars.

(perhaps this text can be cleaned up further? what is a better term for expression type signature?)

Last modified 13 years ago Last modified on Sep 12, 2006 11:43:06 PM